Kan. Dept. of Corrections responds to widespread COVID-19 cases in state prisons

Published: May. 11, 2020 at 5:13 PM CDT
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When it comes to COVID-19 in state prisons, Kansas ranks within the top 10 for the highest number of cases, according to the

which investigates issues pertaining to criminal justice.

As of Monday (May 11), the Kansas Department of Corrections says nearly 700 inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility in Leavenworth County have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to the impact on inmates, the department confirms about 100 staff members at the prison in Lansing have tested positive, making the prison one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in Kansas.

Some inmates currently housed in Lansing are from the Wichita Work Release Facility, transported to the prison in northeast Kansas where there's room for them to be effectively isolated and treated away from the facility's general population. The Lansing facility (about 190 miles from Wichita) has the space and accommodations to assist situations with quarantine/isolation orders, the KDOC says.

Still, with the elevated numbers in Lansing, Eyewitness News Monday spoke with the mother of a man sent there from the Wichita Work Release Facility who's ready for her son to return to Wichita.

The woman, named Lavetta, says her son was one of

after two of them tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Monday, Lavetta says they still don't know if her son has COVID-19. She says some of the men in her son's unit were moved following facility-wide testing at Lansing.

"They didn't say the guys were positive, but took them out to the quarantine center, so none of these guys, whether they're positive or negative, have got their test results," Lavetta says.

Last week, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly said less than half of the COVID-19 tests at Lansing had come back positive, and as of Monday, the KDOC says it was still waiting for results. The department says it hopes to have final results "within the next couple of days."

Since the end of April, Lansing is under a facility-wide quarantine. With this, masks have been provided to all of the prisons' staff and inmates. However, the KDOC says the masks' use is not mandatory at all times.

Officials say trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 with social distancing in a prison is next to impossible.

The KDOC says there are separate living units established for those who test positive and those who test negative.

The department says it looks forward to being able to move the work release inmates at Lansing back to Wichita, "but will only do so when (it) can ensure that it is safe."

Between facility-wide testing a week ago and results coming back, the KDOC also explained efforts to keep inmates apart.

The department says testing 1,700 men happened over several days and as results came in, staff began moving inmates based on their results.

"(The Kansas Department of Health and Environment) conducts contact tracing within the facility with each positive case, so if someone who was negative had come into contact with a positive case, we would identify that and take proper precautions," the KDOC says.

For Lavetta, unease continues until she hears confirmation her son does not have COVID-19 and can return to Wichita. She says he tried to isolate himself from other inmates in his unit.

The Marshall Project estimates that as of last week, nearly 20,000 U.S. prisoners had contracted COVID-19.

"It's a very terrible disease and a lot of people are dying, and I don't want my only child to be one of them," Lavetta says.

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey donated $10 million to

a criminal justice reform organization that has the goal of providing face masks and other personal protection equipment to every prison and jail in the U.S.

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